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Using a Digital Diet for Screen time Decisions

  • Should we set a screen time limit
  • What programs can our children watch?
  • Is my child playing too many video games?  

Children’s technology use is a common topic of discussion echoed in living rooms across the country. A recent piece in the New York Times highlights the struggles faced by pandemic families who express concern over how technology use is taking over their children’s lives and the loss of pre-pandemic media rules (on both quantity and content).  Indeed, with a change to our daily routines, the loss of in-person socialization and reduced outdoor activities children have turned more and more to digital forms of entertainment. But is this increase something that parents should be concerned about?  What does developmental science say about the effects of technology on children’s brains? Short answer: it’s complicated.

Over the past few decades, research on the effects of technology use and development has rapidly increased. In 2018, Congress sent a letter to the National Institutes of Health inquiring about the known effects of technology on child development. NIH Director Francis Collins sent back what amounted to the scientific equivalent of a shoulder shrug. In other words, there’s no scientific consensus on what technology addiction is and how exactly to balance the benefits of tech use with potential harms. This answer is likely not very satisfying for parents wondering if their child is spending too much time on their phone or if the TV shows they are watching are harmful. Parents and researchers might not be satisfied with this question because they aren’t asking the right question.

Asking the Right Questions

In a recent pre-print article, Dr. Amy Orben argues for a reframing of the question about technology use into a digital diet approach. This means approaching the questions about media and technology use in the same way we approach questions about diet. Dr. Orben makes the case that when considering technology use (with children and adults) we should consider:

  • Technology Type – What is the content being accessed and how is it being accessed.

  • Technology Amount – How much technology is being consumed in a single sitting and how much is spread across the week.

  • Technology Balance – Moving beyond the colloquial “screen time” definition to see a more holistic approach of technology use.

  • Individual Differences in Technology Use – Much like people can have intolerances to certain foods, it is important to consider individual differences in responses to technology and media.

  • Utility of Technology – Recognizing when technology is being used as a tool to achieve a personal or intrapersonal goal.

  • Population Differences in Technology Use – Questions about technology use should be culturally sensitive.

Framed this way, the question is no longer how many hours per day should I allow my child to use technology but a much more nuanced what types of digital activities address my child’s social, cognitive, and academic needs and do they have a healthy relationship to the technology they use? Dr. Orben likens this discussion to how we talk about food choices. We would not say there is an ideal amount of carbohydrates children should eat daily without knowing how they consume these carbohydrates, if they have Crohn’s disease, if they’re involved in athletics etc.

What We Know

Given the nuanced view of the digital diet approach, it is no wonder that the answer to the question of “is technology harmful for child development” is “it depends”.  A recent analysis of multiple large social data sets found that there is an overall negative association between technology use and teen well-being. However, putting this effect into context reveals that there are other factors in an adolescent’s life that are far more influential on their wellbeing than technology use. For example, the effect of binge drinking is 3 times as influential on (negative) well-being than technology use while positive activities such as cycling and getting enough sleep are 2 times as influential on (positive) well-being (Orben & Przybylski, 2019).  Clearly, looking at just technology use in isolation isn’t enough.

One concern for parents and researchers is that technology use takes the place of other, potentially more beneficial activities. Indeed, if we look at the previous study, one could make the argument that more technology use might be associated with a decrease in time spent doing physical activities or the ability to get to bed on time.

By looking at the types of behaviors associated with technology use, parents may be able to approach their technology use discussions through a more targeted approach. Recent research suggests that delayed sleep duration is associated with a reduction in physical activities and an increase in sedentary activities. Sedentary activities are associated with a host of negative health outcomes.  Activities such as watching TV, social media use and playing video games can disrupt and delay sleep. Furthermore, the relationship between screen-use, sleep disruption and sedentary behavior is mediated by executive function skills (Warren, Riggs, & Pentz, 2015). Such that children with higher inhibitory control skills can prevent the desire to engage in screen activity prior to bed. Data such as these can help parents form rules about when screen use is appropriate, specifically targeting screen use in the hours leading up to bed-time rather than screen-time in general.

Content Considerations

Much like the kind of food you child eats matters, the type of media they consume matters as well. There is an ongoing debate in psychology about just what kind of effects there are from media. For example, heavy violent media can be a risk factor for violent behavior, but brief exposure to violent video games has little to no effect on aggressive behavior.

For younger children, interactive content seems to be associated with more beneficial effects than passive content. A recent study found that after interacting with educational content, 2- and 3-year-olds saw improvements in working memory and delay of gratification when compared with children who watched cartoons (Huber, et al., 2018). There also are distinctions between the types of passive content your child can watch. For example, shows that have fantastical content (especially things that are impossible in the real world, like a road runner running through a brick wall) can be difficult for young children to understand. One study compared children watching SpongeBob to children watching Arthur and found that immediately after watching the different shows that children who watched SpongeBob performed worse on an executive function task than children who watched Arthur (Lillard, Li, Boguszewski, 2015).

What This Means to You

There is a lot of research being done on technology use and child development. Many findings seemingly contradict each other or don’t show the whole picture, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make research informed decisions about what kind of media to watch and how much technology to use.

Instead of asking “is my child playing too many video games” think about why they’re playing video games. Are they socializing with friends? Is the content of the game age-appropriate and is the activity disrupting important routines? Come up with a media plan with your child and help them develop healthy media habits going forward.

About the Author:

Andrei SemenovAndrei Semenov is currently earning his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Institute of Child Development. His primary research interests are in how reflection and mindfulness training can help improve executive function skills. Currently, Andrei is working on a parenting program that promotes reflection and collaborative problem solving between parents and their children. Andrei has worked with the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing where he helped develop and evaluate programs that promote mindfulness for teachers and educators. Andrei earned his B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder where he studied how overscheduling children into extra-curricular activities may be associated with changes in their executive function skills. He has written and presented his work at academic conferences as well as in peer-reviewed academic journal.

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